Can You Tell Me What In The World A Syllabus Is?
If you pick up a published opinion from the West Virginia Supreme Court, you’ll see things that are pretty common in the legal world: the caption of the case, a summary of how the case was decided, and a list of the attorneys involved. But what comes next is a little more mysterious. There’s a heading that reads “Syllabus by the Court,” followed by a series of numbered paragraphs.
Ok, what exactly is a syllabus? Who writes them? And what purpose do they serve?
The truth is that syllabus points are constitutionally required. Article VIII, Section 4 of the West Virginia Constitution dictates the scope and form of all opinions the Court issues:
“[I]t shall be the duty of the court to prepare a syllabus of the points adjudicated in each case in which an opinion is written and in which a majority of the justices thereof concurred, which shall be prefixed to the published report of the case.”
The syllabus serves as a formal pronouncement of law—a pronouncement that is binding on all other West Virginia courts. The Court often applies the syllabus from an older case. By citing an old syllabus point, the Court is, in effect, applying established law to a new set of facts. But the Court must also decide new issues. The text of our constitution, statutes, and court rules must be interpreted. Changes in technology and social norms require the Court to reexamine and reinterpret existing laws. In doing so, the Court must write a syllabus summarizing the new rule of law so it may be applied in future cases.
In modern practice, the Court also issues memorandum decisions which “are not signed, do not contain a syllabus by the Court, and are not published.” Memorandum decisions have only limited value as precedent. Instead, published opinions containing old and new syllabus points are considered the “primary sources” of the law. State v. Walker, 234 W.Va. 143, 764 S.E.2d 303 (2014).
Jay Stoneking explains what the word "syllabus" means in the heading that reads "Syllabus by the Court".